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The fashion factory of tomorrow

US start-up The Renewable Workshop is described by co-founder Nicole Bassett as a factory for the post-consumer supply chain. She joined Recycling International on a Zoom call to celebrate a recent milestone: the opening of its first facility in Europe.

‘We diverted almost 115 tonnes of textile waste from landfill since The Renewable Workshop launched in June 2016,’ Bassett reports. In doing so, the business saved enough water to fill 137 Olympic sized swimming pools, 85 444 litres of gas, and 25 178 light bulbs worth of energy while avoiding the use of 94 tonnes of toxic chemicals.

About 75% of materials arriving on-site can be ‘renewed’. ‘We’re basically taking what people thought was 100% waste and saying no, only around 25% of items cannot be fixed. The rest can go back into circulation,’ Bassett says. The materials come from producers (take-back schemes and production waste) like The North Face.

‘I am so proud we have opened our first factory overseas,’ Bassett says of the new site in Amsterdam. ‘The next milestone will be to process one million pounds (450 tonnes) of textiles by 2025.’ In a couple of years, a second expansion may follow, possibly in Portugal.

Cleaning with CO2

‘For most products we utilise Tersus Solutions, the world’s most advanced waterless cleaning technology.’ This innovative system is essentially a big washing machine capable of processing 22 kg per hour-long cycle. Tersus harnesses the gentle cleaning properties of liquid CO2 to remove oils, particulates and odour that degrade the useful life of apparel. It’s a closed-loop system where the CO2 starts out as a gas and is compressed into a liquid.

‘Once in liquid form it runs similar to your home washing machine, using an environmentally safe detergent through cleaning and rinsing cycles,’ the entrepreneur explains. At the end of the process, the pressure is released and the CO2 turns back into a gas. It eliminates the need for water, meaning that the textiles come out dry.

Crisis: fashion sector ‘implodes’

The sudden arrival of COVID-19 has ‘twisted’ the balance between practicality and sustainability, according to Bassett. ‘We can’t even take our reusable shopping bags to the supermarket due to contamination fears. As a result, many places are using single-use shopping bags again – even though they were banned in some US states only recently.’

In her view, people are good at handling a crisis but they need time to prepare, especially mentally. ‘With this disease, we had no time to process it. It was such a rapid shift, with everything happening all at once.’

As well as affecting her day-to-day life, Bassett notes the pandemic has also impacted her business. Specifically, the fashion industry has ‘pretty much imploded’ overnight. ‘That is the industry we rely on for our revenue. We’ll be okay for the coming months. I’m glad to say we are in a really good position so I am not worried,’ Bassett adds.

‘Inventories will be low so I think we will be able to help some people outside of our current network.’ The crew has also started creating facemasks and hospital uniforms for medical professionals in the area. ‘This way, we have optimised our production while supporting those people saving lives.’

The full feature will be published in the upcoming issue of Recycling International.

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